Frank Loesser

The music and lyrics of songwriter Frank Loesser (b. New York City, June 29, 1910; d. New York City, July 26, 1969) have been part of the fabric of American culture since the late 1930s, even though those who sing and love his songs are barely aware of their source. Loesser wrote over 700 song lyrics. Standards like “Heart and Soul,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Mañana,” or “Dolores,” written in collaboration with some of the greatest Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths of the twentieth century – Hoagy Carmichael, Burton Lane, Arthur Schwartz, Jimmy McHugh, Friedrich Holländer – along with his own musical creations, Oscar ®-winning “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” plus dozens of hits from Broadway shows, are his ineradicable legacy.

 Because he wrote both music and lyrics to his stage shows, when each of Guys And Dolls (1950) or How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1961) won a Tony Award® for Best Musical, he personally acquired two; his lifetime total was four wins and five nominations, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for How To Succeed.

 Frank Henry Loesser’s father Henry Loesser was an eminent classical pianist, teacher, and regular accompanist to the great Wagnerian soprano Lilli Lehmann. Frank’s older half-brother Arthur would become one of the greatest pianists of his day, but Frank himself never studied music formally – and always felt slightly inferior as a result. As a child he taught himself to play the harmonica and later the piano, writing his first song (“The May Party”) at the age of six. He attended the City College of New York, but only for a year, leaving to take various short-lived jobs with court agencies and newspapers. He began to hit his stride in radio, turning out sketches, song lyrics, and jingles, and teaming up with composer William Schuman (later a serious classical composer and head of the Juilliard School of Music) to write his first published song, “In Love With the Memory of You.”

 By 1935 Loesser was playing in a night club with singer Lynn Garland, who would become his wife and, twenty years later, co-producer of The Most Happy Fella. Collaborating with composer Irving Actman, he supplied the lyrics to five songs in the 1936 Broadway revue The Illustrators’ Show, which ran for five performances.

 Even though the show was a flop, Loesser won a contract with Universal Pictures to write lyrics for film musicals, and moved to Hollywood. Over the next thirty years, Loesser was to contribute to over sixty films, beginning strictly as a lyricist (“Small Fry,” “Two Sleepy People,” and “Heart and Soul” with Hoagy Carmichael; “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” with Friedrich Holländer), but later providing his own tunes as well. 

 During the Second World War, Loesser served in the Army Air Force, but rather than diverting his attention from his true calling, the War seemed to stimulate his creativity. “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (1942), said to be the first song for which Loesser composed the music as well as the lyrics, was a huge popular hit, and many other songs, inspirational and sentimental (“The Road to Victory,” “The WAC Hymn,” “Rodger Young”), reflected Loesser’s deep involvement in the war effort.

 After World War II, Broadway producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin asked Loesser back to New York to write music and lyrics for an adaptation of the Brandon Thomas play Charley’s Aunt. The resulting musical, Where’s Charley? (1948, featuring “Once in Love with Amy”), won the 1949 Best Actor Tony Award® for star Ray Bolger and ran for 792 performances. Hot on the heels of this success and produced by the same exacting team, Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (1950) swept the 1951 Tony Awards®, with Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Choreography, and Best Director. Twelve hundred performances of G&D imprinted an unprecedented number of hit songs on the nation’s consciousness, among them “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along,” “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” “A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Luck be a Lady,” “Fugue for Tinhorns,” “Take Back Your Mink,” and “If I Were a Bell.”

 Meanwhile on the West Coast, a song Loesser had written for his own housewarming party in 1944, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” took a 1950 Oscar ® for its appearance in the movie Neptune’s Daughter. Loesser returned briefly to Hollywood in 1952 to write the music for Hans Christian Andersen, including “Thumbelina” (nominated for an Oscar®), “Inchworm,” and “Ugly Duckling,” all sung by Danny Kaye.

 For his next two musicals, The Most Happy Fella (1956) and Greenwillow (1960), Loesser wrote the book as well as the music and lyrics. The Most Happy Fella (“Standing on the Corner,” “Joey, Joey, Joey,” “Happy to Make Your Acquaintance”) earned Loesser two more Tony® nominations and a Drama Critics Award, but changed his life more substantially in that he fell in love with the leading lady, Jo Sullivan, eventually divorcing Lynn and marrying her.

 Loesser’s last big Broadway hit was How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1961). It won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and seven Tonys®, and ran for four years.

 Frank Loesser passed away from lung cancer at the age of fifty-nine, leaving his wife Jo and two children from each marriage. His eldest daughter Susan has written his biography, A Most Remarkable Fella (1993, 2000).

– LEC